The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is proposing that more locations around the country be used to dispose of very low level radioactive waste. This proposal has raised the ire of environmentalists and nuclear waste storage proponents alike.
In past generations the NRC (and its predecessor, the Atomic Energy Commission), worked to limit unnecessary hazards to public health. It has fought against the moral hazard that pervades nuclear power. For example, it succeeded in shutting down three nuclear reactors at Millstone Power Station in Connecticut where the operator had decided that cheap trumped safe.
One intractable problem has been what to do with spent fuel rods, which generate very significant levels of radiation for a long time. They come only from nuclear power plants. Recycling of the fuel in the rods is feasible but not pursued and, for the most part, these spent rods are stored onsite while the reactors operate and even after decommissioning.
The very low level radioactive waste is at the heart of the NRC’s current proposal. Under current regulations, the user is required to store the contaminated materials onsite until “either until it has decayed away and can be disposed of as ordinary trash” or until it can be safely contained and shipped to one of four active NRC or state licensed storage facilities. For many of these items—medical waste, syringes, gloves, clothing—the half-life of material is numbered in days, with a rapid decline to levels that are considered safe for disposal as ordinary trash. However, radioactive waste from the decommissioning of nuclear reactors, coal ash, construction debris, and oilfield drilling remains radioactive above normal background levels for hundreds of years. Carelessly concentrating this material in landfills can create hazards, as can careless security.
Bad actors can make a considerable profit at the expense of public health. As the United Steelworkers union noted in their public comment urging the NRC against the ruling: “[the ruling]…requires workers with little to no training to handle contaminated material leading to a greater probability of mishandling or improper disposal; and the proposed rule lack[s] requirements to monitor surrounding soil and ground water from any exempt waste location to ensure there is no increase of radiological contamination outside of the potential dumping sites.”
Safe disposal does not equal safety when materials remain active for generations. To improve safety landfills need to keep records for generations, and to deal with low-level contamination appropriately. Over time landfills become golf courses, sources of methane for electricity generation, and mines for reclaiming metal. These activities result in exposure to radiation that future generations must be prepared for. This means meticulous record keeping, which is unlikely to be present across multiple changes of ownership and decades of time.
What the NRC proposes is an expansion of opportunities for things to go wrong. In the past this approach has given us names that remain infamous today: think Love Canal. Brio Refinery. Savannah River and DuPont. It gave us the remains of leaded gasoline.
Water supplies are particularly vulnerable. Historically, the dictum of chemists has been “dilution is the solution.” That works for chemicals. It does not work for radiation, which is being generated continuously.
The current system is better than what is being proposed. Expanding the opportunities for things to go wrong is a step backwards. If the proposal is adopted, today’s laxity and profits will become tomorrow’s health problems and remediation expenses. If we care about coming generations we should leave well enough alone.